NOT every speaker of the English language in Namibia and elsewhere actually knows its rich historical origin. The only perception among users of this language is that English comes from the geographical area called England or Britain.
Notwithstanding this fact, this international language of official business and medium of instruction in Namibia underwent a language evolution process to reach its much accepted current modern status as a global language with its diverse functions in education, commerce and trade, technology and entertainment, to mention just a few.
The English language that we are accustomed to today in Namibia and across the world evolved in three phases: the Old English, Middle English and Modern English.
The years 450 to 1150 formed the Old English period while the period 1150 -1500 was the Middle English era.
The Modern English period is from 1500 and beyond. We should take cognisance of the fact that each of these phases encompasses and constitutes its own peculiar characteristics that shaped the English language.
The historical evolution overview of the English language is quite interesting.
English was born from the conquest of England by the three Germanic tribes, namely the Jutes, Saxons, and Angles. The origin of these tribes is modern- day Denmark. These tribes were the founders of England.
The term ‘English’ is derived from Angles (Angelcynn), one of the Germanic tribes. Thereafter, from the word ‘English’, the country’s name of England (originally ‘Englaland’) was formed.
Therefore, the language name ‘English’ is thus older than the country name ‘England’.
So the question is: how was the earlier version of English formed? English was formed as a result of the fusion of the dialects spoken by the three Germanic tribes who came to conquer England round about the year 449.
Subsequently, this gave rise to Old English. This phase encompassed several unique characteristics; amongst others, full inflections of words, peculiar spelling, pronunciation, vocabulary, and grammar.
Let’s take an example of the Old English pronunciation in contrast to Modern English, for instance, the Modern English words with vowel ‘o’ (e.g. pot, stone, boat and go) had an ‘a’ vowel in their corresponding words in the Old English version (e.g. pāt, stān, bān, and gāt).
Thus, what we can make out of this is that the referred long vowel in the examples has undergone a considerable modification over time, particularly from ‘a’ vowel as in ‘stān’ to ‘o’ vowel as in ‘stone’.
This distinction likewise applies in respect to spelling, vocabulary, and grammar explanations between the Old and Modern English. However, the Middle English is closely related to Modern English as the English language in the two periods share similar characteristics of spelling, pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar; for instance, the word ‘rope’ /rəʊp/ is pronounced the same in both , unlike the Old English where it was ‘rāp’.
Additionally, Middle and Modern English consisted of a large number of French and Latin vocabulary due to the Norman and Roman conquest of England. Latin examples of common words adopted into English since Middle English period to date are: ‘deacon’, ‘altar’, ‘anthem’, ‘manna’, ‘candle’, ‘rule’, ‘shrine’ and ‘disciple’. French words include ‘chauffer’, ‘machine’ and ‘mercenary’.
However, the there was no French and Latin during the Old English; only the Germanic dialects’ vocabulary was found.
Tracing the historical evolution of English reveals fascinating facts about the language that we use every day and that we often take for granted. Such an undertaking is enriching to the English language teacher, especially as the historical evolution of English offers answers to some of the questions the classroom practitioner may have.
I do encourage English teachers in this country to take time and read about the historical evolution of the English language. They will definitely find such an exercise rewarding in terms of the phonetics, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and lexis of the English language.
This kind of knowledge is very useful for personal empowerment and for the learners of English as a second or foreign language.
• Beven Liswani Kamwi is a Master of Arts in English student in the Department of Language and Literature Studies, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Namibia.